The PSP journey so far on the paper trail: 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence

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Archaeological experience has shown the importance of providing a historical perspective when studying a particular issue, at a certain point in time – including the recent past. I’ll (very briefly) discuss this – and the importance of studying the local in relationship to wider spacial contexts – in the following post. But for now, I’ll outline the primary written sources of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I’ve begun to consult in researching histories of domestic violence within and beyond the East Midlands.

Notwithstanding the above comments, to some degree I’m also reflecting upon the sources with regard to my own experiences and encounters (which I intend to outline in the future) – see the previous and following posts, for brief discussions on this topic.[1]

Following the 19th – early 20th century paper trail – the route travelled so far…

I began exploring written evidence for DV in the past several years ago, when examining the works of ‘undercover’ investigative journalist and social reformer, Ada Chesterton, for references to domestic material culture within poverty-stricken and destitute homes, hostels and communities in London (which form part of the data I use in a paper – in prep.  – on early 20th century household material environments). Unsurprisingly, there are references to DV in Chesterton’s work (though terse, and  fewer than I expected to find).[2]

This encouraged me to survey local (Derby), regional (East Midlands) and wider (e.g. London, Birmingham) contemporaneous social reformist and philanthropic ‘reports’ (e.g. Working-class wives. Their Health and Conditions, published 1939, discussed here); memoirs (such as Elsie Goodhead’s The West End Story), verbal narratives / conversational memories (with local people), and a range of oral histories; and numerous works of fiction, to examine how DV was covered at the time; I also took a quick look through court records.

Preliminary surveys of this category of evidence unsurprisingly suggested differing attitudes towards DV amongst and between the various social reformist and investigative sources, and oral accounts (though of course a wider range of sources must be investigated to determine how representative this diversity might be). Memoirs & verbal narratives / conversational memories tended to describe DV as an accepted (and to some extent, inevitable) condition of urban neighbourhoods in the early 20th century (commonly associated with poverty in the public imagination) – and works of fiction (again unsurprisingly) tended to replicate this attitude to dramatic effect.

I also spent some time going through local (Derby) / regional (Derbyshire) court records from the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which I came across many more – often successful – cases brought by women against their husbands for violence.[3] I’ve also recently started to go through local newspaper archives (beginning with papers dating to the  19th century) to see how DV was reported – by searching for the (albeit ambiguous terms ‘wife beating’ and ‘wife assault’). When reporting cases, articles seem to represent the differing attitudes noted above, in quoting perpetrators and victims, as well as witnesses – usually lodgers, neighbours, friends, family, and doctors; and police, magistrates, and lawyers / solicitors. Inevitably, sensational and bizarre incidents are given more prominent headlines, position and space on the page. Though there are differences in these reports when compared to modern press coverage of DV,  at times they appear remarkably similar. I’m continuing this research, and will post particularly informative extracts.

I’ve found some comparisons in the presentation of DV between the newspapers and the late 19th and early 20th century novels that I’ve begun to assess (such as Aurthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago, and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding). However, there are again differences. In this category of evidence, DV is often (though not always) represented through stereotypes (as might be expected), reflecting less varied attitudes than found in the other sources, which I’ll discuss through short reviews of each work, if time permits.

In the following post, I’ll discuss preliminary findings from examining the above range of sources, and consider how this might inform subsequent PSP research.


[1] The practicability of carrying out detailed interdisciplinary research may be dependent upon securing funding and institutional association – independent research without electronic library and data access is proving problematic, constraining development.

[2] I’ve written about Chesterton’s comments on poverty, homelessness, and housing on one of my blogs, here; and published short online articles through the Voluntary Action History Society, here and here. I also plotted the locations of some of the families that Chesterton discusses – often citing the comments of women – within her 1936 book I Lived in a Slum, here, with information on the families, and quotes from the book). Chesterton’s journalism highlighted both the extent and conditions of  poverty and homeless for women in 1920s and 1930s London; drew attention to the broad social backgrounds of homeless women, and the realisation that ‘respectable’ people might easily be reduced to ‘outcasts’ due to circumstances beyond their control, and considered some of the causes of homelessness (including structural problems, such as inadequate housing); and discussed the efficacy of philanthropic and government responses to homelessness and poverty, proffering suggestions – of variable worth -for improvement.

[3] If interested in crime in the past, useful guides to the available resources are available here and here; I’ve also put a little information relating to crime in late 19th and early 20th century Derby here and here; and the 1911 census record of inmates in the County Gaol here.


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